7 November 1997

A farming summer school where East meets West

A summer school for central European agribusiness

students is forging valuable links between eastern and

western agriculture, explains Nick Bond

THIS summer 14 university graduates from Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic spent over four months in the UK learning about farm management at Lackham College and experiencing British agricultural practice first hand through placements with leading agri-business companies.

Attending the sixth summer school for central European agri-business students, they arrived in mid-April and spent their first four weeks at the Salisbury School of English. Although a good standard of English is required before they are selected for the course, the vocational language practice is essential as they were to spend the next three months studying and conversing in English.

It was then on to Lackham College for the main core of the programme, six weeks of applied business management based on the case study method of training. Working in small groups of three or four, made up of representatives of each nationality, they had to analyse specific business problems and make recommendations to the whole group and the case study tutors.

Real businesses

As Richard Gueterbock of the strategic consultancy Foodchains, who started the summer schools in 1992, explains: "The approach has been developed by the training team to suit the needs of the students. They work with real business accounts, statistics, performance data and plans.

"The teaching philosophy aims to give the students responsibility for finding solutions to problems for themselves rather than relying on being told everything in lectures." This approach to learning was certainly novel to several of this years group.

Their final case study involved analysing potential commercial developments at Lackham College and recommending ways in which business diversification could add value to the college farm. Among the well-researched and costed suggestions, which ranged from herb growing, adventure games and a caravan park, were several which would merit serious consideration should the College be seeking to expand its activities.

During the six weeks at Lackham the students were under the charge of the head of farm management Chris Jones. He was impressed by their abilities and they certainly appreciated the help and support which he was able to provide. While at Lackham they visited a variety of farming businesses, as well as London where they experienced British bureaucracy, visiting MAFF, and democracy, with a visit to the House of Commons.

Not only have they gone home with a knowledge of Britain and our agriculture, but also a better understanding of EU agricultural policy and, in some cases, new ideas about their future careers.

One such is Petr Zalovic, a 23-year-old agricultural economics graduate from the Czech Republic, who initially had difficulty coping with the language. His ambition was to become a farm manager but he has changed his mind, interestingly so for someone who was finding understanding English a problem.

"I have decided to apply to Prague University to study languages," he explains. "But after the five-year course I still want to stay connected to agriculture."

Petr had two placements, first with the Midland Bank in Hampshire and Cambridgeshire and then on a Yorkshire farm managed by Velcourt. "With the bank I was shadowing agricultural managers on farm visits. In two weeks I visited about 15 very different farms.

"Negotiations between the farmers and the bank are very different to those back home. The relationship between bankers and farmers in the Czech Republic is very poor. In England it is quite different, the bankers are very forthcoming and helpful to the farmers."

In Yorkshire he found he was helping with the harvest. "I had never driven such big tractors or had to back such large trailers."

His change of career direction has come as no surprise to Velcourt farm manger Hugh Grey who provided accommodation for Petr during his stay in Yorkshire. "Not only did he fit in easily and quickly, but his ability to pick up new terms and phrases was very good.

"I dont think he was used to working such long hours and the machinery we use is probably 20 years more advanced than what he was used to back home. But he took it all on board and didnt shy away from it."

Well motivated

Velcourt have been involved with the summer school since it started. This year it had four students on various farms under the co-ordination of its farms director, Ken Shipley. "They have all been highly intelligent and well motivated with a good understanding of English," he comments.

"In the past we have employed some on a full-time basis following their placements, but coming from different cultures and different backgrounds they do not have the same approach to the job as Western Europeans."

More than 10% of the 110 students who have attended the summer schools to-date have gone on to work for British companies. One of this years contingent who hopes to do so is 26-year-old Agnieszka Parlinska from Poland.

Studying pig breeding

Agnieszka, who graduated in human nutrition and then agricultural economics, spent her eight-week placement with JSR Farms, studying pig breeding, agronomy and marketing, as well as spending time on their pig and beef farm in Scotland. Before returning home she planned to spend a further week with an East Anglian farming company, which has interests in central Europe, with a view to working for them in Poland.

"I would like to find a job working in agricultural investment in Poland," says Agnieszka. She considers that she has learnt a lot during her visit including a better knowledge of EU agricultural policy. "In Poland we learnt about EU subsidies but only in theory. Here we have been able to get the views of English farmers and I have a better understanding why subsidies exist and how they work."

The idea of helping east European agri-business students to understand western agricultural practice through a summer school came to Richard Gueterbock on a visit to East Germany in 1990, while working for the then minister of agriculture.

Over the past six years the summer school has done much to foster good relations and understanding between future central European agri-business managers and the British farming industry. But with the scheme costing £40,000 to run each year, it would not be possible without sponsorship from various British agri-business companies, the British Council and the Thatcher Foundation.

Fortunately companies such as JSR Farms see it as an investment for the future. "We have a charitable trust and we see this as a good way to use some of the funds," explains JSR Farms chairman John Davies. "We have no reservations or doubts about the scheme, we are very pleased to be involved. We are taking an active role in eastern Europe and we hope to link future student placements more closely to businesses in Europe."

Three of this years summer school students at the 1997 Royal Show:(L to R) Petr Zalovic (Poland), Agnieszka Parlinska (Poland) and Bence Otvos (Hungary).